Ron Howard and Lawrence Kasdan unveil Disney+ documentary at Star Wars Celebration

Today’s big panel at Star Wars Celebration focused on the new documentary, Light & Magic, chronicling the special effects work of the geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects house co-created by George Lucas. The documentary series, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan and executive produced by Ron Howard, was unveiled during a panel and press conference today at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. The panel, which featured Kasdan and Howard along with ILM legends Phil Tippet and Dennis Murenas, as well as director Joe Johnston, current ILM General Manager Lynwen Brennan and Rose Duignan, delved into their memories of founding of ILM and where it is headed in the next generation.

Here’s the synopsis for Light & Magic:

Unmatched Access Awarded, Academy Award®Nominated filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan takes viewers on an adventure behind the curtains of Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s special visual effects, animation and virtual production division. He learns what inspired some of the most legendary filmmakers in Hollywood history and follows his stories from his first personal films to bringing George Lucas’ vision to life.

During the panel, we watched a short trailer for the documentary series as well as the opening credits followed by a discussion with the aforementioned ILM icons. The first was director Lawrence Kasdan, who had to attend remotely due to a positive COVID test earlier today. But he was glad to see the turnout and shared how this project came about.

I’ve been around these movies for 40 years. I knew some of these people but I never understood how the special effects happen. I knew it was a house of geniuses. George Lucas had the vision to unite them despite the various disciplines. Art, mechanics, storyboard, etc. He and Jon Dykstra brought them together to create a place unlike any other for decades. The best special effects house in the world. A lot of improvisation in the first days. They all helped each other learn how to hone their craft. Geniuses help geniuses. No pride in asking for help. They just want to do a good job. The entire company aims to create the best FX of all time.

Phil Tippett binge-watched the series and said that he had forgotten a lot of things over the years.

Binge saw it. We don’t usually think about these things. We just go to the next. It was this little kind of paleontological look at the species of us. Pony Express or Cowboys became mythological things. Entities that were slices of time. But they have become our myths. This is one of them. Larry did a fantastic job. He made me miss that time. A tear in my eyes of how much it means to me, my children and their children. It will be here now until the earth explodes.

ILM’s current general manager, Lynwen Brennan, had this to say:

Larry did a spectacular job. What you find in this document is that it is about people. Yes, we’ve done amazing things and the people on this panel have changed the industry, but it’s about the soul of the people. Honestly, I have the easiest job in the world. So many amazing people at ILM and in 5 countries. What unites us is our DNA and spirit and camaraderie. Dennis was saying there was no piling up of secrets AND no sense that anything was impossible. An honor to work there and stand on the shoulders of giants.

We then saw a short clip showing George Lucas’s American graffiti and how Ron Howard’s experience on that set paved the way for Star Wars. Howard had this to share.

Seeing Star Wars was amazing. I saw it twice on opening day. I was already excited to direct my first film with Roger Corman. That simple conversation about using the advancements made in 2001: A Space Odyssey and I began to understand that I was applying technology. The cinema does it really very well. Use new advances one after another. This was an amazing jump. It was incredible. Then when I became an ILM client on my film Cocoon, it was fascinating and I was very intimidated. I’m more focused on the actor and characters as a filmmaker. I’d seen motion control and talked to George about trailers, but immediately discovered that energy was more like talking to artists and fellow writers and musicians. If I had those kind of convos, I could let them be the wizards. Willow was an exponential leap for me.

Director Joe Johnston came from a very different background than the rest of ILM.

I can’t say that I was of a similar mind. I come from a different background as an industrial designer. I saw a flyer on the wall at CalState looking for artists, model builders, and painters for a space movie. Working in Malibu on things that had to work like a water softener or a bus seat. Boring things. I saw this and was like things now just need to look good. It’s easy to design things that don’t have to work. I felt like a fish out of water for a while until I realized that I was part of a giant family.

Johnston also shared how he helped create the look of the Millennium Falcon.

Space 1999 had a ship similar to Han’s ship. Lucas didn’t want to copy anyone. We need a new ship. So I basically went to my house in Long Beach and Grantwood Hume said, Can you use this booth and the radar dish? Since we build and connect them. Please incorporate them into the design. I was feeling pressure and I looked around my apartment and saw a pile of dirty dishes that seemed to always be there. If you took two plates, it looks great. If you put engines in the back and a cabin in the front, it’s a nose. I played and made five or six drawings. The trick was to make sure that George liked the same one. I finished the one I liked a little better and he liked it but the booth was up front and he didn’t like that. So we put him aside and he said yes, that’s good. George was vaguely asking for things because he wanted options.

Phil Tippett also shared how Lucas named some characters.

I found my tribe. Dennis and I evolved from the same swamp. The same plane as mine. We had a history of the same roots. Moving on to my first experience with Star Wars. He developed a relationship with George. The engineering and design of the Imperial walkers. George wanted Tauntaun designs. I made sketches and George liked it and that was done. We made sculptures with skulpy. On Fridays, we would take them out and George would tell us who each person was. He asked me who one was and I told him he was a squid and George said he was Admiral Ackbar. He had no idea, but he came up with stupid names for all of them. He took the squid man and turned him into Mon Calamari. With George, nothing had been written for Jabba’s palace and George was still developing it. He said to do a lot of things to me. He responded to three models that he could lift and rotate and look at from all sides. I really wanted to go exploring and see what happened.

Rose Duignan shared a story about an unfortunate experience with Fox executives while filming Star Wars.

I never took shorthand. Although I write very fast. I came in with the second wave, the last nine months gave birth to the final film. He created a production management system. George came back from filming all the live action in England. The FX budget was 2 million and half was lost thanks to the 70 models and the blue screen technology and the revamping of the optical equipment, but not a single FX shot was made. We immediately started shooting. One day, Joe was in the hot tub and I heard a noise. A bunch of people were laughing hysterically and I stood there and saw Jon Dykstra lifting a cooler on a forklift and dropping it over and over just as Lucas and a big Fox wig pulled up in a limo and look what’s going on, They got back in the limo and he left. I knew we were in deep trouble. That’s when they started calling us the country club despite how hard we worked. We were so young, all in our 20’s, no kids, all work, work, work.

As it turned out, Phil Tippett revealed that Ben Burtt was recording the audio of the refrigerator drips that Rose never knew about. Joe Johnston also shared how he came up with the Star Wars logo design in a hurry.

Gary Kurtz came to see me one afternoon with an idea for a Star Wars logo. In one line, hair-thin letters. Pointed ends. He was in a panic because we need this tomorrow. We already shot the roll up but we need the logo for the opening shot. Can you fix this? I said I can’t, but I can redesign it. He said you have until tomorrow at 10 am. So I basically drew with a ruler pen and ink what I thought it should look like. But instead of one line, I stacked it, and if I had a dime for every time it was printed… I wouldn’t be here right now.

Back to Ron Howard, the crowd sang for Solo 2 to which he said he had no say in the matter, but appreciated the support. Howard later shared

In Solo we had tremendous collaborators. I found him after years away but staying close to the spirit of ILM. Just conceiving of this, Larry is a great storyteller. The heartbeat, the adventure. This series is about that spirit and a renegade quality and his own kind of adventure story. The trailers were spectacular and with my daughter Bryce, who works on The Mandalorian, the trailers just keep coming. It’s always about creativity first. The technology is there and what is the idea, the dream. And everyone on this panel is motivated by this. But it all comes back to George. How do we do it?

Lawrence Kasdan then had more kind words about George Lucas.

George’s genius is that he knows what to ask of people. Things that have never been done before, he can make clear. People would come out saying I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it. We had to work fast but be patient. It was amazing to see that video of Phil and the Snow Lizard. Seeing someone sit down and come up with different designs is amazing and a miracle to me. That kind of talent is in every person at ILM. They want to share those ideas.

Kasdan then concluded with his hopes for those who watch Light & Magic.

I hope that this documentary that everyone’s stories, from everywhere they came from, everyone wanted to do this. The secret wish I had for this show when I cut it inspired creativity over selflessness and my secret wish was to make this for my grandkids. I showed it to them and they got excited and wanted to do things and we did stop motion together. There is a great story at the end. I hope that people, even if they are not engaged in FX, their mind is as important as anything else and they can be supported. If just a few kids get that out of this show, I’ll be happy.

After the panel, we had the privilege of attending a press conference with the panel that shared more stories about the early days of ILM. Take a look at the embeds below.

Light & Magic premieres July 27 on Disney+.

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